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Is epigenetics being exploited by the media?

| August 14, 2014

Epigenetics — the study of changes in gene expression rather than changes to the genetic code itself — is a fascinating field and fast-moving field. It’s one I’ve posted more than once about for Gene-ius and one the GLP has covered several times in the recent past. Now a thoughtful article from Real Clear Science’s Alex B. Berezow has me turning a critical eye to all coverage of the topic.

Berezow’s argument, in brief:

Epigenetics has seen a flurry of research lately and a concordant flurry of headlines, achieving science-buzzword status. Yet the immature nature of the field coupled with an uncritical tendency in reporting on the topic is setting epigenetics up to become “the next big field that the media, fearmongers, and political hacks will attempt to exploit.”

Berezow is in part responding to a recent Nature editorial titled “Don’t blame the mothers,” in which the authors caution against what they see as an unnecessary and socially dangerous tendency of the press to focus on epigenetic effects passed from mother to child. An excerpt:

Headlines in the press reveal how these findings are often simplified to focus on the maternal impact: ‘Mother’s diet during pregnancy alters baby’s DNA’ (BBC), ‘Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes’ (Discover), and ‘Pregnant 9/11 survivors transmitted trauma to their children’ (The Guardian). Factors such as the paternal contribution, family life and social environment receive less attention.

Questions about the long shadow of the uterine environment are part of a burgeoning field known as developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) […]

DOHaD would ideally guide policies that support parents and children, but exaggerations and over-simplifications are making scapegoats of mothers, and could even increase surveillance and regulation of pregnant women. As academics working in DOHaD and cultural studies of science, we are concerned. We urge researchers, press officers and journalists to consider the ramifications of irresponsible discussion.

The authors cite a long and troubling history for women in relation to science and regulation. From emotionally cold mothers being blamed for their children’s autism right up until the 70s; to the gross regulatory over-reaction to preliminary evidence that alcohol consumption while pregnant could cause fetal harm (science has since shown that only heavy drinking seems to pose a risk to unborn children, an occasional sip is fine); to the “media hysteria” around and subsequent criminal of “crack babies” and their mothers.

To say nothing of our country’s deeply dysfunctional relationship with women’s reproductive health, it seems our social machinery is primed to turn precaution into persecution where women and their unborn children are concerned:

Although it does not yet go to the same extremes, public reaction to DOHaD research today resembles that of the past in disturbing ways. A mother’s individual influence over a vulnerable fetus is emphasized; the role of societal factors is not. And studies now extend beyond substance use, to include all aspects of daily life.

And when it comes to the recent rush of epigenetic research and subsequent coverage, there’s a lot of scientific wiggle-room that can be exploited using fear and uncertainty.

Related article:  Natural News' Mike Adams libelously attacks Science-Based Medicine's David Gorski

Berezow writes:

It is a field that is quite literally in its infancy, and there is still much to be learned. If the human genome is the black box of an aircraft, the epigenome is the black box of a UFO. Therefore, be wary of over-simplifications and general pronouncements. They will almost certainly be incorrect.

Anne Buchanan, writing at her evolutionary biology blog The Mermaid’s Tale, notes that epigenetics is “ so trendy that it’s impossible to know what much of it means or how it’s all going to shake out.” Furthermore, epigenetics is “clearly a fad in the sense that once tools are there the scientific community seizes them in a bandwagon effect, showing up in study designs and grant applications and so on, in ways that can exceed the reality.  Everybody now simply ‘has’ to do an epigenetic analysis on their favorite project.  And partly for this reason, not everyone else accepts that epigenetics will prove in the long run to be a significant actor in development and disease.”

Epigenetics is the new hammer, and hammers have a tendency to see all problems as nails.

Berezow’s fears are far from unfounded; In an article written in February of last year, David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine called out alternative medicine quacks for having co-opted the term epigenetics. “Epigenetics,” Gorski writes, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” He cites the notorious Joseph Mercola and Mike Adams as two of the most prominent alt-health charlatans who have latched on a pseudoscientific interpretation of epigentics to justify claims like “your thoughts can cause or cure cancer” or “epigenetics reinforces theory that positive mind states heal.” These are precisely the sort of pronouncements Berezow is warning against.

Let me echo his note of caution and extend it to all science coverage. As Charles Dawrin wrote in The Descent of Man: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Kenrick Vezina is Gene-ius Editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer, educator, and naturalist based in the Greater Boston area.

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The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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